Etel Adnan, Shifting the Silence, Nightboat, 2020

Reviewed by Miriam W Karraker

[Review Guidelines]



How does one navigate life while so close to death? Etel Adnan asserts: "Be planetary." 
     Shifting the Silence is situated on a shore at high tide, near the end of the day, near the end of Adnan's life. Yes. The shifting, after the return of the tide, and my own. A question rushes out of the stillness, and then advances an inch at a time: has this day ever been before, or has it risen from the shallows, from a line, a sound?" This text is recursive from the offset, beginning with an affirmative response to a question known only to Adnan, who is then caught between both déjà and jamais vu. What follows is a reckoning with remembering and forgetting, accumulation and destruction. 
     "When you have no way to go anywhere, what do you do? Of course, nothing. But that's no answer." Adnan is keen to mention her aging body and deteriorating memory; she likely will not travel to certain places again, she may not remember them either. Tides "uselessly advance, so many desires are buried (the mind gets tired too)." Adnan is concerned with what is to be done—given the futility of discerning patterns or narrative through all that's built up through life and cosmic cycles, of forging some kind of direction. "The ocean, itself so turbulent, is still bound, like Prometheus, not to a mountain, but to a pendular merciless movement." Enduring the passage of time is helped neither by ignoring it, nor by watching the clock. "Watching sunset after sunset doesn't heat the house. [...]Better to admit that with the passing of days we know less about just everything." 
     On a more earthly scale, images, people, memories, philosophies recur and morph in Adnan's mind. She is caught between the desire to "reconnect what words separated," to reconfigure abstraction into something figurative and recognizable, yet coherence is too heavy. "Word-languages are a trap, aren't they?" Clouds appear to mark time, then obscure it; fog envelopes vistas, yet brings Adnan in proximity to her soul. "Dark animals roam in the forest, you could touch them," and these animals return, only to be swallowed by waves. These occurrences slide over one another as in occultation, the new eclipsing the old, where for a flickering moment, we may see an outline of what was previously there, before each continuing its orbit. 
     Adnan makes reference to suffocation and claustrophobia as bearing the weight of existence; all that she has carried with her throughout her life feels too much, yet acknowledges the absurdity of being here and now, on this planet in orbit. "We're on a planet sustained by nothing, carried through pure space by a willful star made of fire and in constant ebullition." Adnan also references fire's sustaining and destructive qualities in the context of war and climate change, and also grants them power to generate new meaning. "Our houses are cluttered, our minds too, so a fire as devastating as it can be, can well clear the air, enlarge a space, make room for some silence." In death there is freedom from the memory that accumulates, from the pressure to make it cohere. At this stage in life, Adnan no longer believes in creation, rather, the universe's eternity:

My favorite time is in time's other side, its other identity, the kind that collapses and sometimes reappears, and sometimes doesn't. The kind that looks like marshmallows, pomegranates, and stranger things, before returning to its kind of abstraction. Those days have gone to where days go, in their own cemeteries. Today I see eternity everywhere. I had yesterday an empty glass of champagne on the table, and it looked both infinite and eternal, though it left me indifferent. At least, I was in good company, and a day closer to all sorts of annihilations.

Days end, and planetary orbits will eventually decay. Adnan embraces the chaos and abstraction of life before death, an acceptance of the limits of her consciousness—what has been, what will be again in a different shape, and will never be.